“The Beast in the Belly.” (My favorite medical mystery.)

Have you ever read an essay or a magazine article that’s stayed with you?

24 years ago, a surgeon in New Haven, CT wrote a narrative essay about one of his patients, a young woman whose mysterious ailment led him to investigate a medical condition the likes of which he’d never seen before. His essay appeared as an article in the February 1995 issue of Discover Magazine, which I found lying on a table somewhere – probably in an office at ASU, as I was in college at the time.

I opened the magazine to the most interesting and horrifying medical story I’ve ever read. I say this without a shred of hyperbole.

Real-life mysteries fascinate me.

I’ve never forgotten this particular medical mystery; I’ve sought out the article several times in the 20+ years since. It’s the only magazine article I’ve wanted to re-read over and over, and it’s the only article whose title I’ve never forgotten. Granted, its title is somewhat sensational: “The Beast in the Belly.” Sensational, yet apt.

The first time I wanted to revisit the article, I had to go to the media library in the campus’ main library’s basement to hunt through the archived magazines. I Xerox’d the article so I wouldn’t have to repeat the effort in the future. I re-read the article several times over the passing years, and I also shared it with friends and family, like you do when your fascination borders on obsession. At some point, I lost my copy of the article, but by then we were far enough into the Digital Age that I was able to find the article online. (I remember how amazed I was at the idea of someone putting archived magazine articles on the internet!)

Perhaps the medical mystery in question may not be as much of a mystery today as it was 20+ years ago. It’d been mysterious enough back then, though, that this surgeon encountered it for the first time and learned about it as he frantically worked with a team to save the young woman’s life (which they did). Even if the ailment is less of a mystery now, it’s still rare in western countries, I believe.

The ailment is not common in western countries, and that is why this surgeon and his medical team in New Haven didn’t know what they were dealing with when this patient landed on their table with her guts rapidly necrotizing.

I’ll now leave you to read this essay – “The Beast in the Belly” – for yourselves, if you’re so inclined. (I spent the morning at the hospital, and this story occupied my thoughts while I was there, in case you were wondering why the medical mystery came back to mind this time.)

Grab the beverage of your choice and enjoy!

 

Remembering the Four-Four-Deuce. (The U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team in WWII.)

My parents had wanted to see Hacksaw Ridge, but they weren’t able to catch it in the theater… so we all watched it together in our living room when they came to visit a couple of weeks ago. Callaghan and I were eager to see it again, and we liked it even more on second viewing. Mom and Dad also enjoyed the movie.

Hacksaw Ridge is a World War II film, and it’s an important one for an unusual reason: it tells the true story of a young American man who joins the army as a conscientious objector, refusing to touch a weapon, but determined to make it to the front line as a combat medic. He was eventually allowed to complete basic training without rifle qualification. After finishing skill training, he was sent to Japan with an infantry regiment. There, the regiment fought the Japanese in the Battle of Okinawa atop the treacherous Hacksaw Ridge.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the extraordinary story of an extraordinary man whose extraordinary valor saved many lives.

As I watched the scenes of Americans fighting the Japanese, it brought to my mind, as a Japanese-American, another WWII story: that of the United States Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 100th Infantry Battalion. This infantry regiment was also extraordinary, and also for an unusual reason: the unit was comprised mostly of Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans, mostly from Hawaii.

I say “as a Japanese-American” because I’m not sure how many Americans in the general population are aware that there was a United States Army infantry regiment of Japanese-Americans fighting during WWII. As a Japanese-American, I’m aware of it, as it’s a part of our history in this country.

And it’s an important part of our history… not just in Japanese-American history, but in United States history, and in Hawaii’s history: the WWII Japanese-American soldiers of the 442nd went on to become a key factor in Hawaii gaining statehood. As intoned by narrator Gerald McRaney in The History Channel presents Most Decorated: The Nisei Soldiers, “On August 21, 1959, largely because of the Nisei soldiers, Hawaii became the 50th state.”

*****

American Desmond Doss (subject of Hacksaw Ridge) wanted to serve his country in wartime, but almost wasn’t permitted to do so because of his refusal to touch a firearm. Second-generation Japanese-American men also wanted to serve their country during the same wartime, but almost weren’t permitted to do so because of their Japanese ancestry.

It was a time when Japanese-Americans on the mainland were forced into incarceration… because of their ethnicity.

*****

The only ethnic Americans are Native Americans.

To say that we’re “American” is to describe our nationality – who we are as a nation. Americans are Irish-American, for instance… or African-American, or Japanese-American, or German- or Italian-American. Americans are Polish-American, Franco-American, Korean-American. Americans are Arab-American. And because of the ethnic diversity that characterizes our country, we’re a nation with a proud “mutt” population: many of us are of mixed ethnicity.

Our ancestry does not define who we are nationality-wise.

But during WWII, Japan was our enemy, and Japanese-Americans had the misfortune of looking like the enemy. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that led to the incarceration of west coast Japanese-Americans, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans removed from their homes and placed in the internment camps. Houses and businesses were confiscated. Families were broken apart. Living conditions in the camps were poor to horrendous; many internees were forced to live in horse stables, and all of them behind barbed wire fences patrolled by armed guards.

Not a single Japanese-American was ever found to be guilty of espionage.

Now, today, there are some amongst us who would like to repeat this shameful part of American history. They would like to round up innocent Arab-Americans and imprison them, just as Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during WWII.

*****

My parents are from Japanese-American families in Hawaii, some of which moved to the mainland to settle in California. While parts of these earlier branches of my family in California were incarcerated in the internment camps, two* of my uncles from Hawaii volunteered to fight in the United States Army as members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 100th Infantry Battalion.

When one of those uncles passed away in 2006, a retired veteran found his obituary, read that he was a WWII veteran of the 442nd, and contacted his son, my cousin. The gentleman told my cousin he would ensure that his Dad was recognized with the appropriate ceremony: a military funeral service. And so my Uncle’s casket was draped with the American flag and carried to his gravesite in the presence of an honor guard, and a bugle playing “Taps.”

*****

In 2011, Japanese-American WWII veterans – more than 19,000 of them – were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in a mass ceremony.

In the article “Unlikely World War II Soldiers Awarded Nation’s Highest Honor,” Barbara Maranzani details the extent of the Nisei’s wartime achievements:

“The 442nd became the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history. In less than two years of combat, the unit earned more than 18,000 awards, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars and 21 Medals of Honor. Upon their return to the United States, they were praised by President Harry Truman for their brave stand both home and abroad, and were even the subject of a 1951 film, “Go for Broke”; the film’s title was derived from the unit’s official slogan. Many members of the 442nd went on to distinguished careers in science, academia and government, including nine-term U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii, who lost an arm due to World War II combat injuries and was among those attending Wednesday’s event.”

 

 

*****

Many Japanese-Americans were already serving in the armed forces when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. When the attack occurred, Japanese-Americans were as horrified as any other American, and in Hawaii, especially, Japanese-American men wanted to join the armed forces to fight for their country.

To this day, Japanese-Americans serve in the United States Armed Forces. I’m proud to have been one of them.

My Dad directed me to the above-mentioned documentary from the History Channel. If you’re interested, watching it will be worth your while:

The History Channel presents Most Decorated: The Nisei Soldiers

 

 

Japanese-Americans’ wartime service didn’t begin and end with the 442nd: in addition to the 442nd, thousands of Japanese-Americans also had roles in the army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during WWII. These Japanese-Americans “provided translation and interrogation assistance to the war effort. The MIS is perhaps best known for the crucial role it played in deciphering a captured set of Japanese military documents, known as the ‘Z Plan,’ which outlined plans for a final, large-scale counterattack on Allied forces in 1944. The discovery of the Z Plan has been hailed as one of the most important military intelligence successes of World War II.”

[source: http://www.history.com/news/unlikely-world-war-ii-soldiers-awarded-nations-highest-honor]

*****

Valor comes in unexpected forms. It comes in the form of a young man who wants to serve unarmed on the front line of a bloody battle. It comes in the form of men who want to serve despite looking like the enemy, thus feared, maligned, and betrayed by their own country as Japanese-Americans were incarcerated because of their ethnicity.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 100th Infantry Battalion in WWII was the face of Japanese-Americans’ loyalty to their country. It was a loyalty they proved in bloody campaign after bloody campaign, national pride a stronger force than the racism that tried to oppress them.

*[Editing to add: since posting this piece, my family has remembered at least two more uncles who joined the 442nd. Two of them were incarcerated in internment camps in California when they volunteered.]

Newsflash: the Grand Canyon is not commercial real estate.

Yesterday, I got to the gym early for my morning BodyPump class, so I hung out in front of the low bank of lockers just outside the group fitness room. That’s where people wait when there’s a class in session before their class.

I set my stuff down on top of the lockers and noticed a copy of the day’s Arizona Republic, our newspaper, hanging off the edge. My eye was attracted to the small heading “Grand Canyon at risk” before moving on to the blaring headline beneath it.

 

 

Why is the Grand Canyon at risk? I wondered. What votes? I read enough of the article to get an idea of it before class.

Last night, I read more.

The Grand Canyon’s unfathomable majesty isn’t enough, it seems. The fact that its splendor already draws millions of visitors from around the globe each year isn’t enough. Or maybe it’s too much. It’s too much of an exploitation opportunity for out-of-state commercial real estate developers to pass up.

Plans have been made for large-scale development on a plateau on the Grand Canyon’s eastern rim… specifically, where the Colorado River meets the Little Colorado River. The site is known as “The Confluence.” It’s a sacred Navajo site.

Quoting from the Arizona Republic article:

“The heart of the project, known as the Grand Canyon Escalade, is a 1.6-mile gondola tram ride that would drop 3,200 feet into the Canyon, taking visitors from rim to river in about 10 minutes. The project would also include commercial and retail space, multimedia complex, a river walk and administrative buildings.”

Excuse me?

I read elsewhere that the multimedia complex is reportedly designed to cover over 400 acres. The commercial and retail space would include an IMAX theater, hotels, and shops. In addition to the gondola tram ride to the canyon floor, there will be an RV park.

This is the Grand Canyon, as in, sacred Native American ground. As in, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. As in, please remove your greedy developer fingers from the Grand Canyon… and also, while you’re at it, tell the government to get their hands off of our wild horses, more of Arizona’s native treasures. All of it should be left alone.

This is what developers are planning for the holy site:

 

 

Words fail me here.

Evidently, the Navajo Nation’s president supports this proposal. I get that it would help the Navajo Nation economically, but can’t another way be found?

“Opponents say it could desecrate the region and transform the Grand Canyon from a national park into an amusement park.”

Or background scenery as people shop, dine, and watch movies.

Who would think of coming to the Grand Canyon to catch a show at IMAX?

People go to the Grand Canyon to behold its grandeur. They can opt to hike, raft, and run. They can take helicopter tours to view the canyon from above. The Grand Canyon is nature. It is not commercial real estate.

Can we please just leave the Grand Canyon to be a natural wonder in the desert? Can we please refrain from trampling the sacred ground of indigenous people?

Dust mites. (So the house in France wasn’t possessed, after all.)

As I was making the bed yesterday morning, I thought of an article I’d read last week about how beds contain dust mites that eat dead human skin cells. Before you go imagining harmless balls of fluff that collect on the floor under your bed, like I mistakenly did at first, let me clarify that dust mites are alive, outfitted with multiple legs and a mouth that looks like a vagina, and not to be confused with dust bunnies. The article is called “Scientists Tell You Why Making Your Bed Is Disgusting – And Bad for Your Health,” and it was helpfully posted to my Facebook feed by one of my many helpful friends. I wish I could remember who it was. If it was you, thank you.

I read the article and it stuck with me because it’s all about how making your bed enables these vile little beasts to do their dirty work. The article reveals, as indicated in its title, that making your bed may not be the healthiest thing to do.

In her article, Ms. Harper reports that “each bed contains more than a million Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus – the scientific name for dust mites.”

Somehow this surprised me, but I guess everything alive has to have a scientific name.

“…feeding off of your dead skin cells and pooping (yes, pooping) out an allergen that can trigger asthma-like symptoms.”

 

Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus, aka dust mite.

Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus, aka dust mite.

 

Apparently, dust mites can’t do their things in an unmade bed because an unmade bed is exposed to daylight and circulating air, which are lethal for dust mites.

Dust mites are basically microscopic vampires who can only thrive in the dark. Exposure to daylight kills them. A bed that’s made is their coffin. At night, they feed on your biological matter.

(Okay, they’re not pure vampires, since vampires feed on living blood while dust mites prefer dead skin cells. They’re more of a hiding, creeping vampire-vulture hybrid.)

These findings aren’t new. Ms. Harper explains that the research she references was published in 2006. Then she recounts other research findings that suggest a correlation between making the bed and better mental health, including benefits such as lower stress and higher productivity. She points out that we have to decide which is more important to us: the mental well-being that comes with making the bed, or the knowledge that by not making the bed, we’re destroying the carnivorous creatures who feed on our dead, discarded skin cells at night.

So yesterday morning I was making the bed while re-thinking what I was doing, hesitating for the first time. After some serious consideration, I decided that for me, the benefits of making the bed outweigh the benefits of not making the bed.

See, I was hardwired to make my bed every day before I joined the Army. When you join the Army, if you’re not already hardwired to make your bed every day, you come out programmed to do so, and I’m talking bounce-a-quarter-off-the bed kind of programming. For me, the consequences of not making the bed would be more disquieting than the consequences of turning the bed into a hovel for skin-devouring dust mites, but it’s not a sense of threat that propels me to continue making the bed. It’s more of a reflex, more like how it feels wrong to put on your right sock first if you’ve always put your left one on first. It’s a deeply ingrained habit. To stop making the bed would mean putting forth effort to break the habit, and it would challenge my mental health to see the bed all messy and unmade every day. (Not to mention that our unmade bed would end up covered in cat fur.)

It wouldn’t be worth it, especially since we live in the hot, dry desert, where our dust mite problem is minimal compared to other places we’ve lived. As stated in this other article I found, “…if the humidity is under forty percent dust mites don’t live well so that is why parts of the southwest don’t suffer from this problem.”

I now know that the raging skin problems I’d endured while living in France were probably due to dust mites. That second article also states: “Some people will have an allergic rash reaction of eczema. This is similar to the situation with food allergies: Some people get respiratory types of reactions and others will deal with the problem via their skin by having a rash response.”

Mystery solved.

In France, I suffered constantly with horrible, rash-like outbreaks all over my body, front and back, from my feet to my legs to my torso to my arms. Callaghan never had anything. It was an infuriating mystery, and we couldn’t solve it. While the problem persisted on the French Riviera (when we were there, it was more often overcast and rainy than bright and sunny, and being on the coast, it was never dry), it was much worse when we were up in la Région Rhône-Alpes.

We figured I was having a reaction to some kind of insect. I’m severely allergic to insect bites; they wreak 10+ times the havoc on my skin than on Callaghan’s, so it would make sense that if we had dust mites in our always-made bed in the perpetually dark, damp wilderness of our little mountain abode, I would have this reaction, and Callaghan would not. I’d often wake up with one or several itchy bumps that would erupt into a horrible rash that would burn and itch uncontrollably. If I’d scratch the slightest little bit – even lightly – bruises would form.

All of it vanished once we moved back to the States and the sunny, arid Southwest.

I was going to supply a photo here (one of many) of the strange bumps, scabs and bruises that I constantly had all over my body, but I decided to spare your eyeballs because “what has been seen cannot be unseen,” as we all know. (You’re welcome.)

Death by Palm Tree?? (And good riddance, lawn.)

At the beginning of August, we’d occupied our house for almost a year, and we’d never seen a roach on our property, inside or out. Not a single one. Then the Great Roachapocalypse went down on our front lawn. As of that moment, the lawn’s days were numbered.

It’s hard for me to admit this, because roaches, but the event was your proverbial blessing in disguise. We never liked the lawn. It was Bermuda grass, and it irked me to think we were wasting water in the desert to keep it green. Mowing it took time we didn’t have, and even when freshly-mowed, the grass looked ragged. Getting rid of the lawn sat high on our list of things to do when we felt we could afford it. The roaches simply expedited the undertaking. Let me tell you, it’s amazing what you can suddenly “afford” when a thousand sewer roaches start swarming in a cloud above your lawn.

We were instructed to have our palm tree trimmed first. Not only was it badly in need of it, but it was suspected that the droves of sewer roaches had been lurking beneath the palm tree’s fronds. That’s probably exactly what they were doing… keeping to themselves under the palm fronds, waiting for our sprinklers to come on so they could skitter down and frolic in the glorious, cool oasis that was the sprinkler water puddled where the lawn dipped toward the metal plate covering the water main.

So we had the palm tree trimmed and we were progressing toward the goal of a grass-free front yard when we were unnerved anew. Because astonishingly, the horror story that began with the Great Roachapocalypse continued during the front yard conversion process, when we learned things from our landscaper. Specifically, we learned about a manner of death that I’d never heard of before, an unfathomable manner of death that I wouldn’t wish on anyone: Death by palm tree.

Did you know that the most common way to die while trimming a palm tree is to get murdered by the tree, itself? Neither did we. I listened, aghast, as our landscaper described the phenomenon, an instance of which she’d actually witnessed.

“The dead fronds on the underside fell on him and pinned him to the tree trunk. That’s what happens. You get suffocated.” She made a motion with her hands to demonstrate a palm tree’s fronds slapping downward, like when you collapse an umbrella.

That’s what happens. The fronds clap down, and the tree-trimmer is swallowed up. By the palm tree. My mind veered to the image of a palm tree as a monstrous, upside-down Venus Fly Trap, which, in that case, would be a Venus Human Trap.

Of course, I had to research this atrocity. I was half-hoping to find it debunked on Snopes, even though our landscaper had seen it for herself, but I found news articles reporting such palm tree deaths in three different states, including Arizona (Arizona and California have the highest palm tree death rates). I also found an informative article penned by an experienced palm tree-trimmer by the name of Rich Magargal. In the article, Mr. Magargal describes the three most common ways that people can die while trimming a palm tree, and some preventative measures that can be taken to avoid such a demise.

Here are some quotes from the article:

“Finally, and most importantly, is the alarming and growing death rate by suffocation.

The vast majority of suffocation accidents are the result of fronds sliding down, or sloughing, onto the climber. Just a few feet of fronds can instantly and completely immobilize a climber. There is absolutely nothing he or she can do to remove them because their entire body is forced down and against the palm trunk with hundreds of pounds of pressure. The force of the fronds is primarily on the head of the climber, forcing the chin into the chest. This is how suffocation occurs. Take a moment to put your hands behind your head and pull your head forward bringing your chin in contact with your chest. Notice how little pressure is required to make breathing impossible. Now, imagine several hundred additional pounds of weight on your head and picture yourself under the skirt of fronds 50 feet in the air.”

This already far exceeds my capacity for imaginative comprehension, BUT THEN the author goes on to say:

“Remember, when a climber is working under the skirt, the fronds hang down to around his or her knees. Also note that it is much darker and cooler underneath, so every manner of creature having two to eight legs can be present with you.”

ROACHES.

The only true phobia I have other than roachaphobia is claustrophobia. I’m also an anti-fan of heights.

So I’m reading this article and imagining that I’m trapped high up on a palm tree, pinned beneath a hundred pounds of dead fronds with my neck bent down and suffocating to death while covered in huge roaches, and I die a little bit inside, like some of my cells are withering in a sympathy death for my imaginary worst-nightmare self, and I’m SO GLAD AND GRATEFUL that we were able to have our palm tree trimmed, our lawn torn out, and a flat bed of gravel put in its place.

This is the gravel we chose:

 

We went with the option on the right-hand side of the circle.

We went with the option on the right-hand side of the circle.

 

(I love how she arranged those samples for me!)

Here’s how it looks:

 

Behold our newly trimmed palm tree and our grass-free, roach-free front yard.

Behold our newly trimmed palm tree and our grass-free, roach-free front yard.

 

We now have a flat bed of gravel that will be inhospitable to roaches when they come back with the heat next summer. There will be no water there to attract them, and nowhere for them to hide. THE YARD IS BEAUTIFUL.

See that mark on the ground on the left? Here’s a close-up:

 

Roachapocalypse Ground Zero.

Roachapocalypse Ground Zero.

 

This would be what attracted the roaches when it was hot and our Bermuda grass was being watered. The water was collecting here on this plate. Our landscaper created that border around it before she put in the gravel.

Enjoy some pics of I took of random palm trees with deadly frond skirts on full display:

 

The pic on the left was taken on Saturday morning, and I took the one on the right on Saturday at dusk.

The pic on the left was taken on Saturday morning, and I took the one on the right on Saturday at dusk.

 

The tree on the right shows the most dangerous scenario for a palm tree-trimmer, with its loose fronds hanging down. As Mr. Magargal says:

“There is a lack of knowledge about sloughing. At any point along the trunk of a fan palm it is natural for the fronds to come loose and remain near the trunk, unattached but woven together in a skirt. When the skirt drops nothing can survive beneath it. Even experienced arborists miss the potential of sloughing. Usually, if a palm is going to slough off it may occur as low as 25 to 30 feet from the ground.”

We still have a small patch of grass in the backyard, but there were no roaches on that lawn, because there’s no dipping-down point to collect water back there. We’re keeping the grass there for now.

Those palm trees, though. I’ll never look at them the same again. They’re full of surprises. Our landscaper pointed out some hummingbird eggs she found in ours:

 

Sadly, these hummingbird eggs were abandoned when the palm tree was trimmed.

Sadly, these hummingbird eggs were abandoned when the palm tree was trimmed.

 

So that, I hope, is the end of the story as far as we’re concerned. If you have a loved one who trims palm trees, please share Mr. Magargal’s article with him or her. Let’s save our palm tree trimmers!

The Number of the Feast.

Well. This was bound to happen sooner or later, I suppose.

Here in Phoenix metro this week, someone found “666” swirled with frosting onto her child’s dinosaur birthday cake. Not just any birthday cake, either. The demonic cake was a COSTCO cake. See? I was right… Costco is evil. My Costco-induced panic attacks are NOT due to Costco being a chaotic warehouse of a special kind of too much of a good thing is a bad thing hell in which you’re supposed to be able to find what you’re looking for, frothing over with the ricocheting energy of hundreds of human-shaped mice let loose in a gigantic maze with rows and rows of towering boxes and crates and a million little pieces of cheese laying around everywhere, throwing the mice into confusion as they can’t decide which one to grab first so the pattern within the movement of the masses is schizophrenic as some of the mice wander aimlessly in a retail overload induced state of zombification while others dart hither and thither with varying degrees of harrowing spontaneity as they’re driven by impulse triggered by the things their eyeballs hone in on and ultimately their shopping carts collide like bumper cars and things get knocked over, and since it’s a warehouse, all the sounds in the entire place are amplified and bounce off of each other. Oh, no… the cause of my panic attacks in Costco is clearly written on this ominous cake expelled from the bowels of their bakery last weekend.

 

This is the Costco dino cake design selected by the child's grandmother.

This is the Costco dino cake design selected by the child’s grandmother.

 

The devil is in the details.

The devil is in the details.

 

Might I add that the Costco in question is the Superstition Springs one, which is near the Superstition Mountains, and we all know that the Superstitions are haunted. I mean, of course the demonic cake came from that location. Maybe an evil spirit flew down from the Superstitions to embed itself into this cake. And maybe if you play the music in that Costco backwards, you’d hear demonic whisperings commanding you to buy everything in sight.

Needless to say, the child’s mother was aghast at the 666 “hidden message” (what a clever visual pun of Satan’s, hiding the sign of the beast in a cartoonish beast’s cake-frosting legs) and took action just as quickly as the person who discovered the Virgin Mary emblazoned on a grilled cheese sandwich. This cake incident is actually unsurprising… if you believe in God, then you believe in the devil, and from this logic it follows that if the Virgin Mary is going to appear on a grilled cheese sandwich, then sooner or later, Satan is going to appear on a birthday cake.

Anyway, the news source carrying the article seems to be a Christian outfit out of the Midwest (judging by the listing of news items in the sidebar, and by the announcer’s accent… broadcast journalists at national stations use non-regional diction); I couldn’t find a hint of this demonic dinosaur cake item in the Arizona Republic/AZCenteral.com or the East Valley Tribune or any other Arizona publication. I’m not sure why Yahoo News decided to pluck this article from the Examiner and insert it into its news feed that day, but they did, and that is how it came to my attention.

On that note, I’m off to get ready for work. Happy Friday, All!

The Plot Thickens.

Last spring, I wrote about how the City of Nice chose a Frenchman’s drawing featuring a practically naked, obese woman to represent the United States in a parade float for their annual world-famous Carnaval celebration. The drawing was, shall we say, handily fleshed out with stereotypes of cavalier gluttony and general tackiness in a rather simple and tasteless mockery. This is an image that matches a popular French conception of Americans. Just to make sure there was no mistaking the float’s nationality, the artist put a Statue of Liberty crown on the woman’s head, a bottle of Coke in the hand of her upraised torch-bearing arm, and stood her atop a gigantic cheeseburger.

Here’s the winning illustration:

 

The fat woman on a cheeseburger pedestal towers over the first astronaut to land on the moon.

The fat woman on a cheeseburger pedestal towers over the first astronaut to land on the moon.

 

Here’s the whole drawing:

 

"C'est L'Amerique!" - all kinds of America.

“C’est L’Amerique!” – all kinds of America.

 

Callaghan, who was raised in Nice and carries dual (French-American) citizenship, was also taken aback by the selection of that drawing.

Now, a year later, the City of Nice seems to be having some sort of identity crisis, the main symptom being its 2014 “Greetings to Nice” poster campaign featuring a variety of images of its inhabitants… a self-promotional campaign that blew up in the faces of its creators when an article came out busting them for using… wait for it… photos of Americans.

So much for municipal pride.

What makes this especially ridiculous is that the City of Nice made sure to announce that the folks in the images were “All Nice!” because last year it generated controversy when it used “different” (i.e. non-French) faces to represent itself in a similar campaign.

Feel free to check out the article here. (You can probably gather the general gist of it even if you can’t read French.)

Understandably, the phony campaign has outraged many people of Nice. When the ad copy claims that the creators specifically and exclusively “sought out people of Nice” for their poster images, it must be disheartening to realize that the images were actually harvested from the French version (copied and pasted from the original with a French search engine) of an American photo image bank (Thinkstock), and that none of the models used are even French, much less inhabitants of Nice.

We can’t decide if the people of Nice are more upset by the fact that they’ve been lied to, or by the fact that they’ve been represented by (gasp!) Americans.

On my part, the deception is disturbing not as a misled person of Nice, but as an American who witnessed the City of Nice’ selection of that questionable drawing for last year’s parade. My French isn’t perfect, but hypocrisy does not easily get lost in translation. In this case, it’s coming through loud and clear.

It was an irate Callaghan who brought the article to my attention.

“The City of Nice,” he grumbled as he hung up the phone with one of his friends on the French Rivera, “created a ‘Happy New Year’ greeting card for Nice using images of people from Nice, except they’re not, because the pictures were taken off an American photo bank website! It’s bullshit.”

Callaghan has often said to me that the French regard Americans with disdain and mock them because they secretly want to be them. I never knew what to think of that theory, but now the actions of the City of Nice are giving credence to it.

Americans. Make fun of them in public. Pretend to be them in private.

I’ll tell you what… if I was working on a promotional campaign for the City of Nice, I’d cover the posters with photos of pan bagnat (the traditional Niçoise tuna sandwich) and call it a day. It’s the best tuna sandwich in the world. That’s something to be proud of.

 

Happy New Year from the City of Nice!

Happy New Year from the City of Nice!

 

(The City of Nice Wishes You a Happy New Year 2014 original drawing by Callaghan. Text taken from the article.)

Confession: My Extreme First-World Problem

I woke up this morning and spent a good ten minutes processing the dream I’d had. It involved the revelation that Callaghan and I are geniuses via the supernatural elderly woman who transformed herself into a giant, fiery flower waving to and fro in our direction on a cold, cindery street corner, city unknown. Later, in the back room of a small shop, it was revealed that she was eastern European, but she’d resided in Quebec the last half of her life, so she was technically a Québécoise with a Slavic accent. Once we found out that she’d lived in Quebec, the dream language switched to Quebec French embellished with the beautiful, curly linguistic mood of Hungary or Romania or wherever it was she’d originally called home. But the shop – their family business – projected such a powerful Old World vibe, I felt like we were back in Europe as we sat drinking tea with the woman and her grown son.

It was her son who explained that when his mother transformed into a giant flower made of flames (we could just see her face in the center of it, her mouth opening and closing rhythmically in a mysterious mantra-like communication we couldn’t hear nor fathom in any other way) and waved herself in our direction from the street corner, we were able to see her because we were geniuses. “Only geniuses can see her when she transforms,” was how he put it. It wasn’t the first time we’d seen her, either. Earlier in the dream, she’d appeared on another street in the same city, also transformed, but differently, intoning the same unintelligible sounds at us, trying to tell us something, the same thing, words that were never deciphered. We just understood that they comprised a warning of some kind.

We were not pleased to learn that we were geniuses, because the price of that “gift” was this wraith-like figure in the shape of a flower on fire chanting ominously about what we assumed would be our ultimate demise… something horrific, for sure. Better to be dumb and happy, we thought. Ignorance is bliss.

There was a lot more to the dream, but I’ll leave it at that because the dream was not what I wanted to talk about today.

Ahem.

Today, I wanted to make a confession. A humorous little piece about “extreme first-world problems” recently surfaced on my Facebook feed, which got me thinking… what would be my own most extreme first-world problem? The answer came easily, as it’s something I’ve been lamenting for a while now.

Let me preface this by saying that I tend to think we should be allowed to kvetch a little when life’s inconveniences snag the flowing fabric of our day without feeling guilty because OH MY GOD THAT’S A FIRST-WORLD PROBLEM, but there is a line, as with everything. There’s always a line. It’s the extreme first-world problems that should warrant our guilt, and I certainly feel guilty about mine.

Are you ready?

My most extreme first-world problem is this: I’ve been to Paris five times, but somehow, inexplicably, I’ve never visited Jim Morrison’s grave.

 

Stock photo of Jim Morrison's grave. Not mine. WOE IS ME.

Stock photo of Jim Morrison’s grave. Not mine. WOE IS ME.

 

This is a ridiculous complaint by anyone’s standards, so I think it qualifies as extreme. I mean, try to tell me it does not put some of the extreme first-world problems cited in that article to shame. I’m not proud of this, but it is what it is. What kind of an American am I to have been to Paris five times and failed to EVER visit Jim Morrison’s grave?

To balance things out here, I must say that I’m grateful for every one of my many visits to my beloved Eiffel Tower, and I never take her for granted.

I’m sure as hell going straight to Jim Morrison’s grave the next time I land in Paris, though.

Objets d’Art and the Value of Memories

Prior to Friday night, I’d considered myself to be an art afficionado in a broad sense of the term. I’ve always loved art museums and galleries, and I go through periods of making visual art of various sorts. At one time, interior design school attracted me. At another point, I thought about art school for painting. I decided on a BA in English and ultimately earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, focus on poetry, but I enjoyed art history as elective study. I deeply admire artists of various genres – visual artists of all persuasions, dancers, musicians, actors, film-makers, poets and writers. Over the years, I’ve supported my talented artist friends by purchasing their work, attending their events and making personal donations from time to time. And, of course, I happen to be married to a professional visual artist.

So it was an odd sensation when, at a gallery opening on Friday night, I found myself questioning my perception of myself as a “true” art lover. It happened when my eyes fell upon a porcelain dinner plate. It was white or cream-colored with a pale bluish-green design around the border, if I’m remembering correctly. It was cracked, and the artist had affixed to it a few strands of human hair. It wasn’t the piece itself that really caught my eye, though. It was the price sticker next to it, which read $4,000.00. I looked twice to verify the number of zeros.

Obviously, I’m missing something here, I thought to myself in disbelief. For the first time in my life, I’d encountered a piece of art that whizzed so high over my head that I could barely recognize it. I know… art is subjective. I know. But I was mystified by the idea that there were people who could make sense of the $4,000.00 price tag. What are they seeing that I’m not? It was a peculiar take on the feeling of being left out of a joke. I was more perplexed than anything. Do you have to be a special kind of visionary or hold a certain minimum IQ to recognize an aesthetic appeal worth $4,000.00 in such an object?

Believe me, I tried. I closed my eyes and tried to envision where in my house I would want to put a cracked plate with a few strands of hair on it.  I couldn’t.

Probably the person who buys the plate will set it inside a cabinet with glass doors, where it will sit under display lighting in the company of other unusual objets d’art. It’s a “conversation piece,” they’ll say. Okay… I get that. I get the coolness factor of having a conversation piece. But who has $4,000.00 lying around to spend for the purpose of starting conversations? The hipsters who comprised 90% of the opening’s attendance? (Well, maybe the answer is in the question.)

Callaghan, my professional visual artist husband, wasn’t grasping it, either. Neither was the friend who accompanied us, himself an art-loving designer. And we weren’t the only ones… we overheard others musing about the prices out loud to each other. One thing is for sure – the plate does function well as a conversation piece! It provoked discussion as the three of us tried to fathom how the artist could justify charging $4,000.00 for it, as it provoked this post that I’m writing.

That I wasn’t alone in my confusion reassured me, but I still felt somewhat dismayed when we left the gallery. Art that makes me feel like an idiot! That must mean it’s really good art, and I’m not cool enough, worldly enough, educated enough or perceptive enough to “get” it.

The next day, I went online to investigate. According to the gallery’s website, the current exhibit showcases “complex sculptural work that uses hair and hair products as their medium” by three artists. I went on to read the artists’ statements about their exhibit pieces. While this helped me to understand and appreciate the intent of the plate artist (who is neither local nor an established artist), I still couldn’t reconcile the piece with the monetary value attached to it. The plate piece is described by the gallery as a “memory assemblage,” meaning, it’s exactly what it appears to be: strands of hair affixed to a broken plate (not sculpted by the artist) to create the “complex sculptural work.”

Apparently, what we’re talking about here is putting a price on memories. The work is deeply personal to the artist – the plate is a “family heirloom,” and the hairs on it are from her own head – so understandably, the artist sees beauty in it. But how can she expect strangers to connect to those personal memories of hers to the tune of $4,000.00? If the justification is that the dinner plate is a family heirloom, what does that mean… that the name of the family in question is “Kennedy” and the artist procured it from the White House?  Or that the porcelain plate is an ancient Chinese hand-painted piece from the Ming Dynasty? Is the plate gilt in 14K gold, or otherwise valuable in some material way?

Along with the price, its designation as a “complex sculptural work” confounds me.

I can think of another example of real hair being used in art: horsehair pottery. Native American artists overlay pieces such as vases with horse hair during the firing process. The works are often then hand-etched and decorated with materials such as turquoise nuggets, leather and feathers to exquisite effect. The making of these pieces involves extensive talent, skill, intuitive craftsmanship, precise training, precious materials and hours of work. Since they are handmade every step of the way, the pieces are unique – no two are alike. I bought one for Callaghan when we were dating. Lovely and vibrant with the tradition of its cultural heritage, the item cost less than $50.00. Granted, I found it at an outdoor arts fair when I lived in Arizona; shopping in my own backyard maybe made it easier to get it for a good price, but you can go online and find similar pieces for comparable prices.

 

Handmade horsehair pot by Navajo artist Geraldine Vail, available for purchase for $69.00 on aztradingpost.com

Handmade horsehair pot by Navajo artist Geraldine Vail, available for purchase for $69.00 on aztradingpost.com

 

I’m cognizant of the distinction between art created for the masses as a trade versus art made for a gallery exhibit with a specific intellectual psychological/philosophical theme as its impetus. My point is that creating a piece such as the horsehair vase involves much more of a “complex” creative process than sticking some hair to a pre-existing plate.

Let’s be clear: I am not questioning whether the plate we saw in this gallery qualifies as art. That old debate is not what this is about. Glue your own hair to Grandma’s plate and call it art all day long (but please don’t go so far as to call the “memory assemblage” a “complex sculptural work,” because it is not. As Callaghan pointed out, to call it that is an insult to artists who actually do create complex sculptural works. I personally can’t imagine gluing my hair to a plate and telling a Navajo artist that it’s a “complex sculptural work” worth thousands of dollars). I’m not going to argue the matter, regardless of my opinion.

What I can’t comprehend is the price. I understand that the piece carries great sentimental value for the artist, but why would anyone want to pay $4,000.00 for someone else’s memories?

You’re American. You Must Be Obese.

We got back from our latest trip to Nice last night. While we were there, we took the time to visit the maison de carnaval (“house of carnival”), the place where the majestic floats for Nice’s annual February carnival are made. We wanted to get a sneak peek at the construction progress because, like last year, several of Callaghan’s drawings were selected to appear as floats.

I have something to get off my chest, so I’m going to go ahead and dump it here.

(By the way: This is not about Callaghan!)

Let’s say you’re an artist. You decide to participate in a contest to come up with a series of original drawings on the theme of “The Five Continents,” depicting your visual interpretation of the corners of the world. (This refers to the non-American version of the world’s continents, hence five rather than seven.)

The competition is intimidating. You know that your drawings have to be absolutely inventive in order for the committee to select one or more of them; a prestigious carnival’s enormous, sophisticated floats will be based on the winning drawings.

So here you are, ready to go! The continent of North America lies before you, challenging you. There are many options, many things about this continent you can take and develop into creative ideas. You sit and think and soon find yourself rolling along an exhilarating wave of inspiration, creative idea after creative idea blooming up from the depths of your imagination. Your mind hums with anticipation; you can already feel the satisfaction of releasing the creative mojo from your brain, taking the images from your mind’s eye and transferring them to paper.

You unsheathe your drawing pencils. You’re inspired. You’re proud of yourself. For North America, you’ve decided, you’re going to focus on the United States. You’ll incorporate various elements into your drawing – elements that will represent America. One of these will be an American woman: She’ll be obese. She’ll be blond. She’ll be naked except for blue star pasties on her nipples and a tiny red and white striped bikini bottom. She’ll wear a gold crown. You’ll put her up on the back of a pink Cadillac. In her upraised hand, you’ll draw in a diet soda. She is a parody of the Statue of Liberty.

At the carnival’s home offices, the selection committee reviews the hundreds of entries submitted by talented artists. Next thing you know, you receive a letter of congratulations. Your drawing was selected! Your idea was so original, it beat out all the others. At the end of February, a pink Cadillac float representing America, complete with the ridiculous half-naked obese woman brandishing her diet soda, will drift along in the parade for all to admire. You’ll receive an award for your clever design at the end of the carnival’s run. Congratulations.

Here are the rhetorical questions this scenario begs in my mind: Is the world really so conditioned to viewing America this way that it can’t see the juvenile cruelty of ridiculing obese Americans? Can there be an acknowledgement of the difference between a successful satire and outright hostile social criticism hiding behind the guise of satire?

Dear Selection Committee: I don’t get it. I don’t get why you would taint the illustrious tradition of your annual carnival by selecting a drawing such as this. Shouldn’t you be setting high standards for carnival parades, rather than lowering them by perpetuating mean stereotypes through the pedantic representation of them in your floats?

Why reduce a country’s identity to a stereotype, anyway? America. Geographical wonders such as redwood forests, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the Great Lakes and Niagara falls. Specific, world-wide-recognized characters such as Elvis, Mickey Mouse, the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam. Places such as Hollywood and New York City. All of these emblems could be used as the basis of satire. Also worth considering is the tremendous cultural diversity among the American population.

America is nothing if not multi-cultural. The country grew up as a coming-together of people from all over the world, and those people brought their traditions that have both held pure and mixed together with others. It can be said that to be American is to be of mixed ethnicity; most Americans are “mutts.” I’ve known very few Americans who are 100% anything. It’s not like Europe, where it’s more predictable that people in Germany are of German ethnicity, people in France are of French ethnicity, people in Italy are of Italian ethnicity, etc. There is no such thing as an “American” ethnicity. America is unique in that it’s a country in which almost all of its citizens (the exception being Native Americans) can trace their ethnic roots back to their places of origin. “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity. America is a collection of the world’s people.

How can anyone miss the greatness of this? When you really think about it, isn’t it a stunning concept? Isn’t it great, I mean truly great that a country such as America even exists?

What I’m trying to point out is that it’s kind of gratuitous to draw an obese white person and stick it on a float called “America” to represent its people. Clearly, the intent here is not to satirize. The intent is only to turn the subject into a laughing-stock for the amusement of the parade audience, most of which is not American.

Stereotypes can be negative or positive. Obesity is a negative American stereotype that suggests disapproval of not just a body condition, but a psychological one as well. Often, obesity is perceived as an attitude-oriented issue – one that can easily be changed if the person “really wants to.” It’s a complex stereotype, and it’s hostile: the obese are viewed negatively on different levels. This is why I’m feeling this drawing stretch beyond satire, and I have to wonder what the artist was thinking. Did he choose to portray obesity because it would be the easiest of the negative American stereotypes to draw? Or because it’s perceived to be the funniest? Or because it was just the first thing that occurred to him when he thought about America, so he went with it without bothering to search his mind for alternatives?

I saw this drawing, obviously. In my opinion, it’s not even that good. (I think I’m at least slightly qualified to make this judgment, since I live with Callaghan and I see the results of his considerable talent every day.) Regardless, if the decision to draw an obese person was made in bad taste, the decision to select the drawing out of hundreds was even worse.

I believe it would be possible to come up with ways to visually satirize America with the finesse required to also celebrate it – not just mock it. Intelligent, creative satire. I’m all for it.

We’re aware that obesity is an accelerating medical problem in America. But who is anyone to indict us, as a nation, for being “greedy” or “lazy” or “self-indulgent” (or whatever the perception may be) because of it?

Who is uglier – the obese American, or the person ridiculing him or her?

Support Your Local Free Radicals!

Last night, Callaghan looked over my shoulder to see where I was in the June 2012 Allure magazine a friend sent to me from the States. Always interested in the latest skin-care science research, I was absorbed in a “Skin-Care Special” article titled “The Antioxidant Question,” by Patrick Rogers.

Callaghan read with me for a few minutes.

“A long time ago, I thought that ‘free radicals’ was a political party,” he reflected.

“A political party!” I was suddenly rolling on the bed laughing.

“And L’Oreal was always in a fight with them. There was the ‘formule anti-radicaux libre’.” (Anti-free radical formula.)”

We were still laughing when we returned to the article. One paragraph stated: “Green tea: Extracted from green tea leaves, this potent antioxidant fights free radicals and quells inflammation.”

“What is a ‘quells inflammation’?” asked Callaghan.

I lost it.

Now, in my defense, I didn’t spontaneously laugh at his English. I, of all people, know better than that. It was just that we were both already laughing about the free radical thing, so I never had a chance to catch my breath and recover before he asked about the “quells inflammation” – it was one funny thing immediately following another, like a multiple orgasm. Except that a multiple orgasm isn’t funny. Not necessarily. I guess it depends on how you look at it. Anyway.

We turned the page. “‘A free radical is like a loose hand grenade,’ Bank (the quoted scientist) explains.”

Cracking up all over again, we decided to stop reading and just find the phrases about free radicals:

“…compounds that can neutralize free radicals.” “Once unleashed in the body, free radicals roam around like stalkers…” “…free radical busters….”

By the time we were done with the article, I was wiping tears from my eyes, and I had to blow my nose. One thing is for sure: A political party called “Free Radicals” would be easy to defeat. All we would need would be a few tons of antioxidants.